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Southwest Airlines engine explosion linked to similar accident in 2016

A Southwest Airlines plane was forced into an emergency landing on Tuesday after one of its engines exploded.

Southwest Airlines Emergency Landing NTSB investigators on scene examining damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane Source: AP

Updated at 3.50pm

A SIMILAR ENGINE fault that caused a fatal mid-air engine explosion that cracked a Southwest Airlines plane window two days ago was reported in 2016, according to inspectors.

An engine on the Southwest Airlines plane blew apart two days ago, showering the aircraft with debris and shattering a window. A women sitting next to the window was partially blown out and died of her injuries.

The plane, which was headed from New York to Dallas, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.

Investigators said a blade that broke off mid-flight and triggered the fatal accident was showing signs of metal fatigue – microscopic cracks that can splinter open under the kind of stress placed on jetliners and their engines.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) has ordered inspections on engine fan blades like the one that snapped out the Southwest Airlines plane.

The announcement late last night comes nearly a year after the engine’s manufacturer recommended the additional inspections, and a month after European regulators ordered their airlines to do the work.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also blamed metal fatigue for an engine failure on a Southwest plane in Florida in 2016.

That led manufacturer CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co and France’s Safran SA, to recommend last June that airlines conduct the inspections of fan blades on many Boeing 737s.

The FAA proposed making the recommendation mandatory in August but never issued a final decision.

Yesterday, the FAA said it would issue a directive in the next two weeks to require ultrasonic inspections of fan blades on some CFM56-7B engines after they reach a certain number of takeoffs and landings. Blades that fail inspection would need to be replaced.

Southwest Airlines Victim Jennifer Riordan, the woman who died in the Southwest Airlines incident Source: AP

It was not immediately clear how many planes would be affected. Last year, the FAA estimated that an order would cover 220 engines on US airlines. That number could be higher now because more engines have hit the number of flights triggering an inspection.

Southwest announced its own programme for similar inspections of its 700-plane fleet over the next month. United Airlines executives said that they had begun inspecting some of their planes.

American Airlines has about 300 planes with that type of engine, and Delta Air Lines has about 185. It will not be clear until the FAA issues its rule how many will need inspections.

The emergency earlier this week broke a string of eight straight years without a fatal accident involving a US airliner.

Southwest Airlines Emergency Landing The plane sits on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport after it made its emergency landing on Tuesday Source: David Maialetti/Staff Photographer / AP

“Engine failures like this should not occur,” Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, said.

Sumwalt expressed concern about such a destructive engine failure but said he would not yet draw broad conclusions about the safety of CFM56 engines or the entire fleet of Boeing 737s, the most popular airliner ever built.

Federal investigators were still trying to determine how a window came out of the plane. The woman sitting next to it, identified by family members as 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan, was wearing a seatbelt.

Philadelphia’s medical examiner said the banking executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico, died from blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso.

Southwest Airlines Emergency Landing The broken window on board the plane Source: Marty Martinez/AP

It is unknown whether the FAA’s original directive would have forced Southwest to quickly inspect the engine that blew up. CEO Gary Kelly said it had logged only 10,000 cycles since being overhauled.

Before yesterday’s announcement, critics accused the FAA of inaction in the face of a threat to safety.

Robert Clifford, a lawyer who is suing American Airlines over another engine explosion that caused a fire that destroyed the plane, said the FAA should have required the inspections – even if it meant grounding Boeing 737s.

“There is something going on with these engines,” he said. “And the statistical likelihood of additional failures exists.”

William Waldock, a safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, predicted the FAA’s decision. He said the scope of FAA action will depend on whether investigators find fatigue in other fan blades on the broken engine.

“The first thing they probably are going to do is pull every single one of those other blades off and X-ray them to see if they’ve got a similar type of failure waiting to happen,” he said.

Southwest Airlines Emergency Landing The scene aboard the plane after the accident occurred Source: Marty Martinez

The Southwest CEO protested that it is too soon to say whether the accident is related to any other engine failures.

Kelly said the plane was inspected last weekend and nothing appeared to be out of order. A spokeswoman said it was a visual inspection and oil service of the engines.

The NTSB’s Sumwalt said, however, that the kind of wear seen where the missing fan blade broke off would not have been visible just by looking at the engine.

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Associated Press

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